Dec. 13, 2011
PISCATAWAY, N.J. - Meighan Simmons and Tennessee had been struggling in the second half against Rutgers.
The sixth-ranked Lady Vols lost all of a 13-point lead and found themselves down by three before taking control with a late run to seal their 67-61 victory over the 11th-ranked Scarlet Knights. Simmons hit two clutch 3-pointers during the game-changing spurt.
"It was a great win for us, great win against a very good, well-coached team," Tennessee associate coach Holly Warlick said. "I thought when we needed to we made the big play."
Trailing 54-51 with 8:33 left, Tennessee (6-2) scored 13 straight points, holding Rutgers without a point for nearly 8 minutes. Vicki Baugh started the burst with a layup and Simmons hit consecutive 3-pointers to give the Lady Vols a 61-54 lead. Taber Spani hit another 3 with 1:52 left to seal the victory.
"I feel like there's a time and place for everything," said Simmons, who missed eight of her first 10 attempts. "At that time it was a moment where we hadn't scored in 4 or 5 minutes, I was open and happened to take the shot, thank God it went in."
The game featured two Hall of Fame coaches with Pat Summitt and C. Vivian Stringer of Rutgers. The long-time friends have combined for nearly 1,950 victories during their illustrious careers. They stand first and third on the women's basketball all-time victory list.
Summitt received a warm standing ovation from the crowd before the game and shared a long embrace with Stringer. Rutgers players wore warmup shirts that said "We Back Pat" in honor of Summitt's battle with Alzeheimer's. The school also presented Tennessee with a collage of Stringer's favorite photos with Summitt and a commemorative jersey at the half.
"I saw them with the shirts `We back Pat' and the crowd got loud when she walked out, people respect Pat and people back her and care about her," said Shekinna Stricklen, who led Tennessee with 22 points. "It's a great feeling for us to be playing for Pat."
Stringer hasn't had much success against Summitt in her career, winning only twice in 17 meetings, including losing the last eight games. There have been some memorable games lately in this series, starting with the NCAA title game in 2007 which Tennessee won. The teams met the next year in Knoxville and the game ended in controversy with a last-second clock issue.
The last time the teams played at Rutgers, in 2009, the Scarlet Knights blew a 20-point halftime lead.
"It's been intense," Summitt said of the rivalry after her team's practice Saturday. "Both teams are going to be very focused."
After the game, Summitt walked over to the end line and said a few words to former Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand, who was paralyzed making a tackle on a kickoff return against Army in October 2010.
April Sykes scored a season-high 27 points to lead Rutgers (9-2), which was looking for its first win over Tennessee since 2004.
It was the Scarlet Knights second loss to a Top 10 team this season. Rutgers lost in double-overtime at Miami.
"I was telling them that I knew we were not pretenders, but were contenders and plan on being that. It hurts now but the key is we know we can compete," Stringer said.
The Lady Vols got off to a quick start behind Stricklen. The senior preseason All-America had 10 straight points for Tennessee during one stretch. Her jumper with 5:48 left in the half gave the Lady Vols a 33-20 lead. That would be their last points before the half as Rutgers turned up its defensive pressure, scoring the final eight points before the break, including four by Sykes.
Rutgers continued the run to start the second half scoring 11 of the first 14 points. Sykes' layup 2 1/2 minutes in gave Rutgers its first lead of the game at 37-36. Khadijah Rushdan's basket moments later capped the 19-3 burst.
Neither team could pull away. Rutgers built a 54-51 lead on consecutive scores by Rushdan and a layup by Sykes with 8:33 left. That would be the Scarlet Knights' final points until Sykes hit a 3-pointer with 35.9 seconds left that made it 64-57. Rutgers would get within four on Monique's Oliver's lay-in with 12.6 seconds left.
"We have heart and determination and know we'll never be out of the game," Sykes said. "You're never out of a game when you have time. We took the lead but didn't execute down the road and it hurt us."
Rushdan finished with 16 points. Spani and Simmons each had 13 points for Tennessee.
The Lady Vols are in the midst of a four-game trip. They beat No. 20 DePaul on Sunday in the Maggie Dixon Classic at Madison Square Garden.
"To come away with two wins on this road trip we're thrilled," Warlick said.
After a brief stop back in Knoxville, Tennessee will head to California to play UCLA (Dec. 17) and No. 4 Stanford (Dec. 20). The Lady Vols won't play at home again until facing Old Dominion on Dec. 28.
Tennessee was missing freshman point guard Ariel Massengale, who is sidelined with a dislocated finger on her left hand that she injured while diving for a loose ball at the end of practice on Thursday. She sat on the sideline in a sling and most likely won't play on the California trip.